Literature’s Mischief

My favorite literature professors in college had one trait in common: a sense of mischief. They were serious, devoted scholars, leaders in their fields—but their eyes and words twinkled when they spoke. They understood and conveyed the aspects of literature that wriggle away from us, stump us, play tricks on us, tease us with allusions, and run away.

They stood outside of literary fashions and jargon. Elsewhere I would hear people say “subversion,” “embodiment,” the “I persona,” and other such words, over and over. Such terms did have meaning, but many used them for safety. “Subversion” was one of the most frequently abused; any tilting, any twist of a trope becamse “subversion.” Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to gallop off into the fields and read with bees, not buzzwords, in my midst (though I am allergic to bees).

Later, I found a similar tendency in K–12 education, in the emphasis on “reading strategies.” Here again, jargon stood in for crafty, well-tuned reading. Students (supposedly) learned how to predict, make inferences, and determine importance, as though these skills could be applied uniformly. The strategy-promoters treated literary works as interchangeable, replaceable, and subordinate to processes.

But literature doesn’t bow to strategies or to fancy terms. It makes its own way and takes a feather-duster to our thoughts. On January 1, 1917, Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer, “You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.”

Here Frost points to the egoism of casual reading. When you read something breezily, you tend to make it what you think it is. It becomes, in some sense, an image of yourself. It’s attentive reading that takes you into the surprises and the mischief.

It would be foolish to try to locate mischief in every literary work; not all literature is mischievous, and mischief takes many forms.. The point is to recognize it where it does occur and to have room for it in oneself—room for zigzags and leaps and wiggles.

Examples of mischief in literature abound. I’ll give just a few.

1. The opening lines of Reflections on Espionage, a spy tale in verse by John Hollander:

Cupcake here. Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands….

Here’s the utterly unlikely opening “Cupcake here” (who ever heard of a poem beginning with “Cupcake here”?) set against the humdrum “Hardly anything to report / Today.” And there’s already some suspense: what is it that can be done in the morning and on the outlying islands? The reader is drawn into the tale, the verse, the codename (there will be many more), and the rest.

2. A passage in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There’s hardly an unmischievous passage in that book.

I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

The narrator is clearly inviting the reader to find other meanings in “Nose”—but that’s not all. There’s the impish digression—the beseechings, the moral buildup, the syntactical crescendo—all leading to the truism “a nose is a nose.” There’s something suggestive in “of what age, complexion, and condition soever,” as though the reader’s physique had something to do with the matter. There’s the appeal to the “love of God,” when all the while the narrator is using the wiles that he attributes to the devil.

3. This will be the last example: a poem in Saul Bellow’s short novel Seize the Day. The mysterious guru Tamkin has written the poem for T0mmy Wilhelm, the central character, who finds himself adrift in midlife’s muddle. The poem is dreadful, by Bellow’s design—forced, silly, bombastic—but like Tamkin himself, it has a few flecks of truth. I’ll quote only the title and first stanza, so as to stay within “fair use.”

MECHANISM VS FUNCTIONALISM

ISM VS HISM

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

With these three examples I have only dipped into the topic. There are thousands more. I have not tried to classify mischief or to provide a history of it. But the examples have these traits in common: they bend to no fads (though they may play with a fad or two), they bring out possibilities of language, and they push a person into thought and laughter. And if  there is a God who looks down upon our bumblings, it may well be such passages, among other things, that convince Him (or Her, or some Mysterious Pronoun) that we were worth the ruckus.

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